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How Transactional Analysis can help you communicate better, Part Two - the OK Corral and warm fuzzies

Basic concepts 2: the stroke economy

An associate of Eric Berne's, Dr Claude Steiner, has, in the years since Berne's death, developed the concepts of strokes and scripts much further. Steiner describes what he calls the “stroke economy”. All people of all ages require strokes for their psychological, and even physical, well-being. Children who live without being touched, without getting positive feedback, do not develop mentally or physically as well as children who are touched and get lots of attention. In Steiner's words: “Strokes are transactional units of recognition. Research has shown that strokes are required for actual survival in young children and psychological survival and health in grows ups. Strokes can be generally divided into positive and negative based on the subjective experience of the recipient; positive strokes are pleasurable, negative strokes are painful.”

The Hipwoman

The Hipwoman

Claude Steiner reading "A Warm Fuzzy Tale"

A fairy tale for adults

To illustrate this concept Steiner wrote what he called a “fairy tale for adults” entitled “A Warm Fuzzy Tale”. In this story everyone is given at birth a soft “Fuzzy Bag” from which they could at any time they felt like it take out a “Warm Fuzzy.” Warm Fuzzies were so-called because they made people feel warm and fuzzy all over. For that reason also they were in much demand, but were freely shared – anyone could give anyone else a Warm Fuzzy, and frequently they did. There seemed to be no end to the availability of Warm Fuzzies as any time anyone wanted one they simply reached into their Warm Fuzzy Bag and took one or asked someone else to give them one. As in any fairy tale there was a wicked witch who managed to convince all the people that in fact there was only a limited supply of Warm Fuzzies which made the people stop sharing them. People began to guard their Warm Fuzzies and be very careful in sharing them.

As a result the people began to shrivel up and feel very poorly. But into this bad situation came the Hip Woman who told the people that the witch was wrong and that in fact the supply of Warm Fuzzies was infinite. She was distrusted and resented by many of the grown-ups who feared she might lead to reckless giving of Warm Fuzzies and the eventual depletion of the supply of them. They started to make laws to stop her and prevent the children from giving away Warm Fuzzies, though some of the grown-ups joined her. A struggle started between those who believed that the supply of Warm Fuzzies was limited, and those who thought the supply unlimited. Steiner ends the story with these words: “The struggle spread all over the land and is probably going on right were you live. If you want to, and I hope you do, you can join by freely giving and asking for Warm Fuzzies and being as loving and healthy as you can.”

Games people play - image by insaneone on Deviantart

Games people play - image by insaneone on Deviantart

Cover of the first edition of Games People Play by Eric Berne

Cover of the first edition of Games People Play by Eric Berne

Basic Concepts 3: games and pastimes

“Oh the games people play now
Every night and every day now
Never meaning what they say now
Never saying what they mean” - from “Games People Play” by Joe South

Games and pastimes are ways of structuring time in order to obtain strokes. Pastimes are relatively short-lived and innocuous, like conversations at a cocktail party. They usually follow fairly set patterns, like the Weather pastime (had enough rain recently?); Sports (how come the Proteas (the South African national cricket team) can't beat the Aussies?); Drugs (marijuana should/should not be legalised, don't you think?).

Games, on the other hand, are rather longer than pastimes and are very often destructive for those participating, although the participants are invested in keeping the game going. Games are played for pay-offs in the form of strokes, but these are generally negative strokes because of the underhand or manipulative nature of the games. Berne, in his book Games People Play identified a large number of transactions that he termed “Games” - a game being defined as “an ongoing series of complementary ulterior transactions progressing to a well-defined, predictable outcome.” (Games People Play, 1969).

This book became a huge best-seller all over the world, due at least in part to its catchy title and the equally catchy titles Berne gave to the games he discussed in it.

Discussion of individual games is beyond the scope of this Hub and I will perhaps return to the subject in a later Hub. Games in TA are also not universally accepted. There are therapists and other practitioners who are critical of games theory. Even Berne, after the publication of the book, slightly modified his definition of games “by emphasizing that there has to be a switch of ego state by one or both parties before the final, concluding crossed transaction.” (Fanita English, 2005).

What is clear from the theory of games is that people get “hooked” into playing games which leads to inauthentic and ultimately destructive transactions.

One of the commonest games people get sucked into is the one Berne called “Why Don't You – Yes But” (YDYB), which was the original stimulus for describing games. Berne gives this example of this common game in the book:

White : "My husband always insists on doing our own repairs, and he never builds anything right."

Black : "Why doesn't he take a course in carpentry?"

White : "Yes, but he doesn't have time."

Blue : "Why don't you buy him some good tools'?"

White : "Yes, but he doesn't know how to use them."

Red : "Why don't you have your building done by a carpenter?"

White : "Yes, but that would cost too much."

Brown : "Why don't you just accept what he does the way he does it?"

White : "Yes, but the whole thing might fall down."

Berne says of this game: “YDYB is not played for its ostensible purpose (an Adult quest for information or solutions), but to reassure and gratify the Child.”

In general, Berne says “Pastimes and games are substitutes for the real living of real intimacy.” They are often used by individuals to avoid intimacy. Berne again: “Intimacy begins when individual (usually instinctual) programming becomes more intense, and both social patterning and ulterior restrictions and motives begin to give way. It is the only completely satisfying answer to stimulus-hunger, recognition-hunger and structure-hunger.”

The message: if you want to communicate in such a way as to meet your need for strokes, don't play games!

The OK Corral as designed by Franklin Ernst

The OK Corral as designed by Franklin Ernst

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Development of the OK Corral by Mountain Consulting (2009)

Development of the OK Corral by Mountain Consulting (2009)

Basic concepts 4: the underlying philosophy

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had

And add some extra, just for you.”

However it should be noted that no individual will be completely in Adult mode all the time, and neither is it desirable that the individual should be. We all need playfulness and the spontaneity of the Child as well as the nurturing and caring of the Parent. What helps communication is if these other ego states are under the “control” of the Adult.

The basic, underlying philosophy of TA is that all individuals are born “OK”, that is, we all have the right to be in the world and be accepted, and that we can change. This leads to the concept of the “life position”, the way we view the world and other people. This life position is influenced by everything we experience after birth – it might be how our parents treat us, as in Larkin's poem, or how we are treated by others. There are basically four life positions, which are expressed as: 1.I'm OK with me; 2, I'm not OK with me; 3, You're OK with me; and 4, You're not OK with me. These can be plotted in what Franklin Ernst in 1971 termed the “OK Corral” which is illustrated here.

These life positions lead to different ego states and therefore different modes of communication. The ideal is the top right quadrant of the Corral, where the individual is communicating out of the “I'm OK with me and you're OK with me” position. This implies a strong self-esteem and a respect for the other person. Such communication is likely to be Adult to Adult, the most open and desirable communication mode.

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2009


Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on January 23, 2010:

"I'm OK, You're OK" was written by Thomas Harris, a colleague of Berne's. He has been much criticised by some in the TA fraternity for "dumbing down" or "trivialising" TA. I personally think his book is a good introduction to TA but is overshadowed by James and Jongeward's "Born to Win" which to me is a really great book.

Thanks for dropping by and reading, I appreciate it.

Love and peace


Cassandra Mantis from UK and Nerujenia on January 23, 2010:

Facinating subject. I read a book a long time ago called "I'm ok, you're ok", this seems very similar but more up to date. Great absorbing read!

amillar from Scotland, UK on January 13, 2010:

I've never heard of TA before, but I recognise the characters you portray. The Black /White one reminds me of the song There's a Hole in My Bucket Dear Lisa.

Interesting stuff Tony.

Aine O'Connor from Dublin on January 13, 2010:

I've read both your hubs on TA so far and like Tajana it's very timely. Thanks

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on January 12, 2010:

Thank you ladies for your interesting comments. I appreciate them very much.

So glad it came at the right time for you, Tatjana. That means a lot to me.

I agree, Susana - sometimes Berne's language is a bit dry. But it's worth persevering with.

Love and peace


Susana Smith from UK on January 12, 2010:

Good reading Tony :) TA seems to have gone out of fashion but I think it's an excellent (and easy) way for us to understand ourselves and our interactions with others. I had TA psychotherapy for three years quite a while ago now, so I learnt a great deal about it in that time. I still use TA concepts everyday especially in terms of being aware of the games I'm playing or that people are trying to hook me into.

Something I would like to see is a more readable and understandable version of Games People Play - it's a good book but the way it's written is pretty crap IMO! LOL! I had to read it about 6 times to make sense of it - then again it was written a long time ago.

Anyway, it's nice to read this - many thanks for putting it together :)

Tatjana-Mihaela from Zadar, CROATIA on January 12, 2010:

Years ago I read "I am OK, you are OK", and "Games people play" and they really helped me to understand myself and other people much better. Especially is useful to read game that alcoholics and their families play, understanding this game is crutial to stop addiction in the families, and not only addictions!

I am very thankful for your TA serial - it just brings me back memory of TA wisdom, exactly in the right time I need it again.

Love and light

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